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Lettres persanes

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A remarkable book. Its topics read as if written in 2010: Persian/ "Iranian" Islam trying to convert Armenian Christians and Zoroastrians because of the new Shah's edict. Hence, all the Armenians fled, emptying with a stroke of the pen "all the skilled workmen, and all the businessmen of Persia."Then there are the gender issues, letters written by favorite wives in the seraglio to their husband in Paris; or, the chief eunuch's letters on the difficulty of guarding the seraglio, especially Roxanne. Then there's the historical, comparatist reflections, say on slavery in Rome versus slaves guarding the seraglio. Roman slaves were very productive, and could grow very rich: from tours of Roman tombs and Neapolitan tombs from teh Roman era, I know this to be true; their wealth sometimes grew because Senators, for example, were debarred from money-making except as land-owners and patrons.One of the fictitious letter-writers compares Roman slaves in their industry and eventual wealth--enough to buy their and their families' freeedom--to the lazy luxuriousness of Persian slaves whose only "job" is to guard the seraglio.This is a stunner, to read a work from 60 years before the Declaration of Independence that addresses many issues that populate our evening news, as well as some issues (Roman slavery) that would be discussed if we TV watchers were smarter.The reflections on religion are astute and timeless. For instance,"It is observable, that the members of the minority religions commonly make themselves more useful to their country, than those of the established religion; because, being excluded from all honours, they can only render themselves considerable by their opulence; they are led to acquire it by their industry, and to embrace the most toilsome employments in the society." What better argument for varieties of religions, and against majority rligions, whether Islam in Iran or Evangelicalism in the US?
Emily Dickinson's Selected Poems

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Dickinson is arguably the greatest poet in the history of the language; her 1776 poems, give or take a few, are so concentrated they require the same time commitment for reading as, say, Shakespeare's collected plays. She made out of the humble ballad form (or hymnody's "common measure") an entirely new vehicle, so that it is hard to write ballad form uninfluenced by Dickinson, just as it is nigh impossible to write iambic pentameter uninfluenced by Shakespeare. Like Jane Austen in size--and in both writing at tiny desks, for tiny women--she like Austen revolutionized her chosen literary form. I read her, three or four poems a day, for a year. A very fine teacher of mine (a well-known critic and reviewer) read all her poems in a couple months--and all her critics. He was not as impressed as I was, I think because he did not commit the necessary time--and ear. Her poems on specific natural phenomena--natural creatures, the weather, the dawn--are unsurpassed. One of her greatest poem evokes the Blue Jay, a mean bird: "No Brigadier throughout the Year / So civic as the Jay..." After describing him as a good neighbor, buddy of snow and winter's severity, Dickinson spells out her theological position, why she never attended the Congregational Church her brother Austin built diagonally across the street. For the Jay: "His character--a Tonic--/ His future, a Dispute--/Unfair an Immortality / That leaves this Neighbor out." Talk about universalism. ED includes even the unkindly, but neighborly Jay among the Saved.
Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now

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Angelou is a first-rate autobiographer, and a mediocre poet, though a fine aloudreader and stage presence in an era when even Obama's first inaugural poet had no idea how to aloudread her own poem. Angelou fulfills the limited popular American (Romantic) idea of a poet--one who talks, ad infinitum, about oneself and one's problems (or in Angelou's case, problems over which she triumphs*). We are still stuck in the Romantic period, two centuries after Wordsworth and Coleridge (then Keats and Shelley and Byron) first started writing poems about themselves.Chaucer didn't. Shakespeare didn't in his plays, and in the sonnets, he gives a stage version of "self." Moliere didn't. Dryden didn't. Austen didn't. Dickens didn't really, even in Copperfield (a very dif feel from what his childhood must have felt like). The list goes on.Arguably, poets have the least interesting of lives, if they have the time and place to write. Not as interesting as a plumber's life, even--though I have known one good plumber-poet. The most interesting lives--say, a teenager in Mali, a refugee in Syria, a Parisian Jew at the start of WWII--are often too overwhelming to write well about, in the midst. Hemingway determined that all 20C writers would have to try to live "exciting" lives, in order to write about them. Poets don't bother. They find themselves endlessly interesting, though nobody else does. In Angelou's case, she combines sentimentality (Give me a cool drink of water 'fore I die...) with a triumphant tone of overcoming which always signals Public Relations. Then she adds a supcon of platitudes, like "one thing I cry for / ..believe in enough to die for...everyman's responsibility to man." If Bill Clinton had valued poetry more and politics less, Gwendolyn Brooks would have been his Inaugural poet. JFK had the respect for poetry--and the political genius--to select a political enemy, longtime Republican, to grace his Inaugural, Frost.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

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Wonderful when you're six or seven years old, up to maybe 11? In combination with Gene Autry singing on the old 78 rpm, "Ru-dolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/ Had a very shine-yy nose / And if you ever saw-wit,/ you would even say IT GLOWS..."Why I say it may be good to age eleven: the theme of course is rejection by one's peers, "They never let poor Rudolph / Play in any reindeer games." Rejection by peers is a common misgiving of kids and early adolescents--as well as, according to the adds for acne medicine and hair and skin and nail and clothes products, many adults as well.But, Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa drafted Rudolph as a headlight. Then all the reindeer loved him, he having become an Historic Figure in the Reindeer-Christmas world. This is a story of a social difference, and a physical handicap working to great social advantage. And it was written long before handicaps gained any status as general concerns. I must have read it around 1950. Yikes. The (slightly) greater part of a century ago.
Naples '44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy

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This is a fine book, accurate daily participation in history with the addition of Lewis's fine irony. For example, put in charge of Naples security by the Allies, he is given the same offices the Germans had--with all their files. The persons reporting to German security, snitching on their neighbors, were the same ones who reported to Norman Lewis.His account of the workings of Italian courts are vivid, sometimes heartbreaking, as when a father of three is jailed for a year for having army rations. Or when a woman is raped because there are army blankets in her apartment. His descriptions of soldiers, such as the Canadians who use first names with their superior officers, are perceptive, often amusing.Here's his definition of democracy after Mussolini: "The glorious prospect of being able one day to choose their rulers from a list of powerful men, most of whose corruptions are generally known and accepted with weary resignation" (169)
Father Goriot

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Cheering for a father of daughters to read this book--or any father. The daughters only write to ask for funds, as they make their way up the social ladder well above where they can even acknowledge their father.Who but Balzac writes of a proud French General, "simple as a child," or of "professeur," essentially a prep school teacher, at "Collège de France, payé pour tenir a la hauteur de ses auditeurs " (56). He writes of youth, and its "contagion des sentiments."The wonderful, patheti ending features a French funeral--for which , see Dickens' satire in theUncommercial Traveller. Pere Goriot's death is unattended by his daughters, his funeral...well, no spoilers on that. Goriot gets some grand monologs, for sure.
Henri V

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I have argued, with support from a couple of my senior Shakespeareans at SAA, that Henry V is the comedy Shakespeare promised at the end of 2 Henry 4, epilog: "to continue the story, with Sir John [Falstaff] in it. But after the actor who played Falstaff disappeared (Will Kemp--probably to tour Germany), Shakespeare created a very different kind of comedy, a reconciliation of conflicting nationalities in the usual comic resolution, however preposterous: marriage. And in a thoroughly modern (even modernist) touch, the spirit of comic reconciliation pervades the play through its linguistic playfulness. This is Shakespeare's only play using national accents: French, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and of course English. I would speculate that the "Great Britain" only enshrined around a century later (1705?) was initiated under James I, and here in Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth, previewed. The comic interlude of Fluellen and Jamy, etc, features the strong Scottish and Welsh accent, where for instance Fluellen says, "Alexander the Pig." He is corrected, "Don't you mean Alexander the Great?" F, "The great, or the pig, are all one reckonings..."Later in the play, the King "claims kin" with F's despised Welsh minority; "For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman" (4.7.105). And Fluellen may speak English "funny," but he is an excellent soldier, and very knowledgeable about the history of warfare, especially Roman. Well, all this is available in Fran Teague, Acting Funny in Shakespeare, which I heartily recommend with self-interest.
Cape Cod

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This includes Thoreau's funniest, and his most plangent writing: plangent, early in "The Shipwreck," where he witnessed the fairly common wreck of a square-rigger from Europe, this one from Ireland. I do conflate this shipwreck with the one that took the life--and the great MS on Garibaldi-- of Margaret Fuller. That would, of course, have been later in the century.Because the storm had shut down the Provincetown ferry from Boston, Thoreau took a train to Cape Cod, and on the way, at Cohasset on the South Shore there was a shipwreck (the St John from Galway, Ireland), with bodies washed ashore, and awaiting relatives trying to identify them. A touching, resonant scene, among Thoreau's finest writing. "I witnessed no signs of grief, but there was a sober dispatch of business which was affecting."On the other hand, the Wellfleet Oysterman is hilarious. Thoreau and his companion find a cottage willing to put them up for the night. But not knowing their character, the landlord with such chance guests locked them in their room. This common practice was done. When breakfast was prepared, Thoreau observed the landlord spitting on the fire near the eggs; his companion thought it was nearer the oatmeal. Each, of course, chose his preference according to their conflicting observations.
Some Experiences of an Irish R.M.

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Absolutely hilarious. The British judge, the RM for Royal Magistrate, arrives in rain, compelled to buy a horse from his savvy landlord who's already overcharging. The house is vast, with unexplored inner reaches--unexplored until various fugitives lodge there. Without fear of contradiction, the best fox hunt in all of literature, an Irish fox hunt with everyone participating, bicycles, carts, several horses of varied abilities and instincts regarding walls, ditches and fences.I do not know the current state of Irish reaction to this book, whether it is seen as baldly critical: humor always has that possibility of serious misapprehension. (Many readers of Confederacy of Dunces resent the book, though it is a modern classic.) But take it from me, with an Irish surname at least, Hilarious.
Twelfth Night or, What You Will

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Here Shakespeare borrows as so often in his comedies, from Plautus for the overarching plot--the separated siblings, the twinning (recall his Errors, and the Menaechmi), the arrival from sea. But he adds so much as to make it unrecognizable as a Roman comedy. He adds an attractive drunk, Sir Toby, who fleeces a silly aristocrat who--perhaps alone in literature-- knows himself to be silly. He adds, for instance, a parody of Renaissance psychiatry (well, more theology, but since "psyche" in Greek is both "soul" and "mind," that's fair) practiced on Shakespeare's only American. Instead of the common psyche ward question, "What does 'the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence' mean to you?" Feste as Reverend Psychiatrist asks, "What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning the soul?" Remember, you can't get out of the psyche ward unless you answer right. Well, Malvolio DOES get it right, he hits it out of the park, but Feste keeps him in lockdown anyway. Why?Herein lies a tale. Malvolio is portrayed as stark raving mad simply because he wants to marry the boss's daughter--or really, the boss herself. A crazy idea. An American idea, one that would take a couple centuries and a Revolution to be accepted by anybody at all. Those rejects on the other side of the Atlantic.Yes, Malvolio is Shakespeare's only American (except possibly Othello?). And he is indeed, as he himself pleads at plays end, notoriously abused. He vows revenge on the whole pack--which we, as delighted playgoers, cannot support, though justice, and America, are on his side.
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